Wednesday, April 10, 2013

who cares if it's satire?

I had to ask myself why, in retrospect, I had been so excited to see Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers. I guess because it combined the Korine sensibility (which I know mainly from 1995's compelling Kids) with themes of pop culture, debauchery, and the lives of young women. I guess I hoped it would be like a self-aware version of "Jersey Shore." But I must've looked at my watch 50 times during the movie, with its endlessly repetitive footage and dialogue. It is about four college girls who go to Florida for a boilerplate Spring Break experience of drinking and partying, but get mixed up with a repulsive thug named Alien (James Franco) and go on a murder spree with him.

The whole thing comes off as generally banal and feels like a juvenile attempt to shock. Ooh, violence! Ooh, senseless nihilism! Since Korine is considered an art-house filmmaker, critics have been trying to layer meaning on top of it, earnestly pondering whether it's "satire" or dumb sexploitation, with the implication that if it's "satire," it is intelligent and worthwhile. But I am really sick of satire as a device for young men who consider themselves badass to wallow in self-admiration. (Is Harmony Korine "young"? He was born the same year as me. I will be 40 in 10 days, and I just don't know what to do with that. Yes. We are young.)

With surprising frequency, news articles appear about college students (always, or almost always, male) who publish articles in their college paper that are meant to be "satire" of sensitive, "taboo" (oooh) topics like RACE and RAPE, but their skills are so poor and the essays so hamhanded that they wind up coming across instead as examples of the bigoted, toxic attitudes the pieces supposedly satirize. Then they cause a stir because they're so offensive and hurtful. One technique they use is to bombard readers with as many stereotypes as possible, thinking that this has the effect of "subverting" those stereotypes, which is subversive. This happens so regularly that it seems like a recreational ritual for college boys who like to consider themselves smart, politically incorrect troublemakers. It's like the intellectual equivalent of Spring Break. There should really be a component of Freshman English called "What Is and Is Not Satire."

So I really don't think it's interesting to contemplate whether "Spring Breakers" was satire. If it was, that basically means that Korine was indulging in his preferred film-school version of beer funneling. If we contemplate it, we are indulging him. I mean, I know he's not just some random college sophomore, he's a celebrated indie filmmaker with a track record, but I just wish everyone would stop assuming that the question "is it satire" is the same as the question "is it intelligent."

The main flaw of the movie is that it's boring and repetitive. Is it a "commentary" on the moral bankruptcy of Today's Youth? I don't care. If it is, it's a boring one. The "commentary" basically is, "Look how terrible they are!"

But there are a few interesting things about the movie anyway. Let's talk about those instead of the question of whether it's satire.

It's one of the rare films that explores the way girls try to be hard-core. One false stereotype about girls is that they don't gain status from being hard-core, that they get femininity points for being quiet and accommodating. That's never been my experience of girlhood, especially when I was in the stage of youth (late teens) that these girls are in. But it's interesting to watch the four protagonists occupy different places on the continuum of most to least hard-core, and what it implies for each of them.

Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), with matching beach-blonde dye jobs, have a limitless appetite for danger and sleaze. After they stage a robbery of a diner to get money for their Florida trip, terrorizing its patrons, they're just completely high on their own power to create mayhem, and have an unqualified enthusiasm for any amount of sex, drugs, guns, crime, and murder. By the end of the movie, they're the only two girls still partying.

Next is pink-haired Cotty (Rachel Korine, Harmony's wife), who's a bit more toned-down. She drives Brit and Candy to the diner and stays in the car while they commit the robbery. She takes a nap while Brit and Candy force Alien to fellate his own (loaded) automatic weapons, laughing all the way. When she gets shot in the arm, she decides she's not having fun anymore and boards the bus home.

But the most uptight party-pooper of all is Faith (Selena Gomez), the sweet, religious "good girl" of the bunch, who has undyed dark hair and says, "I don't like this, I don't feel comfortable" when Alien first takes the girls under his wing, taking a special, creepy liking to her, stroking her chin, seeming like he's about to give her a disgusting kiss, echoing the sex scenes with Telly in Kids where he has sex with very young virgins, tells them he cares about them, and unknowingly gives them HIV. Faith, unlike those girls, isn't convinced, and gets on the bus home right after that.

It's an obtuse, clich├ęd cop-out on Korine's part that he uses religiousness as the basis for Faith's lack of faith (funny how that works) that everything will work out OK if she and her friends go off with this leering dirtbag. It reduces her, more than is necessary, to Luann, the shrill, bible-thumping prude in that other movie about a foursome of girls on spring break, Shag. But the movie is unexpectedly good to Faith, and to girls like her. I spent more than my share of time as a teenager playing the role of the shaky-voiced girl who's like "I don't like this, I wanna go home," and that was never fun. But Korine validates that girl, oddly enough. It isn't religion that saves Faith--it's a healthy self-preservation instinct.

Much as pop culture claims that all the best social-status rewards are reserved for the girls-gone-wild, Brit and Candy don't get any of those rewards. They get to become murderers, and they get to have sex with a truly repellent guy, the kind of guy who's usually portrayed as going to prostitutes who pretend to like him as part of their job but really find him unbearable. It seems genuinely weird that Brit and Candy seem to really enjoy having sex with him, rather than pretending to enjoy it--isn't pretending what girls are usually rewarded for? Being--if I may invoke Ashley Benson's claim to fame--pretty little liars? I mean, the dude is not even sexy-ugly, like Vincent Gallo in Buffalo '66. Faith, and to a lesser extent Cotty, are spared.

Meanwhile, the process by which Candy and Brit devolve into complete miscreants is also worth looking at. At the beginning they're just ordinary thrill-seeking teenagers, but the diner robbery does something to them. They're so blinded by the adrenaline rush of risk-taking that they don't seem to notice that the things they're doing aren't even fun. It's like the queasy downer version of 21, that movie about a bunch of MIT students who figure out how to cheat Vegas casinos and are power-drunk on their own outlaw cleverness; I got caught up in the adrenaline when I saw that movie. I felt the thrill. Here I didn't.

And I guess that's what the problem is: I wanted a movie about hedonism to at least feel a little hedonistic, to offer a little pleasure, which would lend some much-needed tension to the girls' leap off the deep end into despair. If the "commentary" is just that there is no pleasure, it's all sheer stultifying emptiness, then I guess Harmony Korine truly isn't young anymore.

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